by Jessica Cassella, San Francisco Fellow 2012
This post was written in conjunction with Blog Action Day 2011. This year's theme is food.
When you are homeless, food is both a blessing and a curse.
During my Junior year of college, I spent my spring break on a homeless immersion experience in San Jose, California. We spent the week sleeping on the floor of a church community center and experienced what it feels like to walk 10 miles in a day to get from a food shelter to stand in line for hours waiting for shelter. We wore dirty, ripped clothes, and had no money, no access to showers, and no phones. One day, we were given a list of tasks for the day, including tasks like "get food from a food shelter," "apply for a job," "collect 100 bottles and cans," and "eat lunch at a Salvation Army." With the exception of our immersion director, no one knew that we were on an immersion trip. There were no directions, no guidance. Just go figure it out. And perhaps the one thing that I remember being most surprised about was that every obstacle and every opportunity was related to food.
Our first task was to get food from a food shelter. My mother used to help run a food bank, and I have spent many hours over my lifetime volunteering and giving out food. So to be standing in line, waiting to receive food, was a whole new perspective. When I made it to the front of the line, I was given a choice between one of two bags that was meant to last for two weeks: a "cooking bag" or a "non-cooking bag." I chose the non-cooking bag, as any homeless person without access to a kitchen would choose. I looked into the bag and had to remove any refrigerated items, since I had no access to a refrigerator. I also saw a jar of peanut butter, which I had to remove since I am deathly allergic to nuts and nut products. That left me with pop-top cans (I was especially grateful for the pop tops since I had no can opener), no fresh produce, bread, and no protein. Even though most nutritional food was missing, the bag was heavy and had no handles. I cursed the challenge that I knew would lie ahead as I carried around a heavy bag of food without handles, but I felt extremely blessed that I would have this food by my side, if nothing else.
My most valuable possession was a shopping cart that I found stranded on the side of the road. Often times, we see people with all of their belongings in shopping carts, with garbage bags tied to the sides of the cart filled with bottles and cans. But I did not truly appreciate the value of the shopping cart until I had walked two miles with a heavy shopping bag of food and still had to attempt to collect 100 empty bottles and cans. Being interested in law, I knew that possessing a shopping cart could be reason enough for a police officer to stop me. So I pushed the shopping cart down sides streets and avoided main streets whenever possible. To make matters worse, the shopping cart had one very squeaky wheel that attracted attention to it, as if a homeless girl walking down side streets with a shopping cart wasn’t conspicuous enough. I cursed the attention that the shopping cart drew to me and the potential trouble that I could get into, but I felt blessed to have this cart to help carry my essentials while I was homeless.
My next task was to apply for a job. I noticed a motel on the side of the road, so I carefully hid my shopping cart in a bush in order to protect my most prized possessions and walked into the motel lobby. As I walked in with my dirty baggy pants and ripped jacket, a women on her phone looked at me, quickly changed directions, went into her office, locked the door and peered through the blinds. I was furious. I had never ever been treated like that, and stormed out in a huff. It wasn’t until I got to a fast food restaurant that someone let me even fill out a job application. I cursed people who stereotyped me simply based on the way I looked, but at least one person at a fast food restaurant provided me a potential opportunity to get out of my current situation.
Another task was to find and eat lunch at a Salvation Army. We were not given any addresses, and definitely had no phones or GPS systems to find a Salvation Army. I had received a pamphlet from the staff at the food shelter about all of the homeless services in the city and where they were located, and I realized that the closest Salvation Army was a 4 mile walk through downtown and past San Jose State University. So I took my shopping cart with its squeaky wheel and walked in the beating sun past a police officer on his lunch break, past SJSU students who were my age, past people who pretended to be very involved with their phones/iPods/child as soon as they spotted me. When I arrived at the Salvation Army, I was a little nervous about the lunch they would be serving given my extreme allergies to nuts, but I was starving and eagerly hoped that there would at least be something that I could eat. Turns out that I arrived just as they were ending lunch service (since it has taken so long for me to push my shopping cart), but they gave me a white bread sandwich with (lots of) mayonnaise, ham and cheese, chips, and a small apple. I noted the lack of nutritional value of the meal, but was grateful for anything that I could eat. I cursed the long walk for a simple sandwich, but was blessed to have such kind and empathetic people around me who seemed particularly saddened that someone my age could be homeless.
Despite all of the obstacles that I cursed, I realized that any day with food was a highlight for people who are homeless. The search for food forced me to walk 10 miles a day, and that was in a city that had one of the better and more comprehensive array of services for the homeless. Out of everything, food, a shopping cart, and a fast food industry job directed my day, and I learned very quickly that my homeless experience would be solely controlled by luck.
But food should not be given only to the lucky. Food should be a guarantee for everyone, no matter if their luck has run out or not. Food is even more essential for those whose luck has run out. Food has the ability to comfort and bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation, or it can be over-consumed and underappreciated. Food is not simply nutrients that we must consume in order to survive. Food gives us an opportunity to create a more equitable and just world by prioritizing those who need it most.
I should note that any food that was not eaten was donated back to the food shelter that we started at.